If your travel dreams include the French countryside’s wineries galore and towering, ancient castles, you’re in for a massive treat, my friend. The Loire Valley in France is like the epicenter for your castle-hunting heart. There are over 300 to choose from! (and don’t even get me started on all the wineries.)
We have hit this area twice so far and I love it more and more. There’s something magical and romantic about exploring these time-worn fortresses where you know some serious shit went down. Most castle interiors are going to be turned into museums of a sort, with original tapestries, art and furniture from times long ago. I like this part. Since they typically do a great job staging the rooms, I like walking through imagining what life was like (we all romanticize the kings and queens era of the past…even though everyone was dying at 35 from a cold, pooping in stone holes and never bathing). Here are my faves, from crumbling, empty ruins to Disney style-turned-museum behemoths.
Chateau de Chenonceau
As far as castle experiences go, Chenonceau has it all. It has a beautiful, storybook facade and the entire castle is actually built over a river. The inside is also staged magnificently, perfectly preserved and a delight to walk through. The grounds are also impressive as the river is right there flowing underneath.
When we pulled up to this one, the first thing I thought was Beauty and the Beast because of some of the details on the outside. Villandry is actually famous for its gardens, so we didn’t go inside. We roamed around the grounds and the flowers and the outside, admiring all the work that must go into the upkeep of the place. Definitely worth a visit if you enjoy gardens.
Amboise was the town nearby where we were staying so this one was a must. It’s also a must because *drumroll please* Leonardo di Vinci’s tomb is here. Like WHAT? A huge art lover and appreciator, this was a big draw for me. As we walked up to the small chapel where he is buried, I was slightly nervous. We were the only ones in there, which made it really special. I actually teared up and was speaking very softly like I was at a funeral, even though the guy died 500 years ago (exactly 500 this year, actually. He died in 1519). Mad respect, Leo.
After I composed myself, we continued on to explore the actual castle. The views from up on the hill where it’s located are spectacular, looking out all over Amboise. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the cars, it seemed as if nothing had changed since the 1500s. It was a little unnerving, feeling as if we’d been transported back in time looking out over the rooftops.
The inside of the castle itself was another home run, with excellent staging. It’s not my favorite interior, but still worth the trip inside.
Chateau de Chambord
Chambord is probably the grandest of castles I’ve ever seen and the largest in the Loire Valley. Francois I, evidently needing to compensate for something, intended this to be his…wait for it…hunting lodge. Yes. Hunting lodge. The biggest castle in the area definitely cannot be missed; it’s worth it 10000%.
The inside is just as grand, including a double helix staircase designed by *another drumroll* Leonardo di Vinci. Two people could walk down each staircase and never once run into one another. It’s pretty dang good engineering for the 1500s.
Tickets €13 / €4 parking
Chateau de Fougeres-sur-Bievre
Fougeres-sur-Bievre is actually my favorite castle I think, but not for reasons that may entice others to visit. (I know that’s the point of travel blogging, but hear me out.) It’s the oldest, smallest, and cheapest on my list…it was also the emptiest. This thing was built in 1030…1030! We were the sole people there visiting and it wasn’t staged at all to make it look perfect. It was just there and they let us run amok among all the ruins and in the rooms. A few of the rooms had some old furniture and tapestries, but not much. We even made our way into one of the top turrets I believe, and there were just like…pigeons sitting in the rafters. It was all very time travely.
I loved how old it not only looked, but felt. It’s hard for us Americans to wrap our heads around things that are older than 1750, so 1030 is simply mind melting. If you want to have a mostly empty castle all to yourself to explore, this is the one for you.
Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire
This one was the one I was most excited to visit because of the Prince Charming and Cinderella vibes. When we arrived it felt like I was in some king and queens movie set and it was perfect. However, once inside, I was absolutely not feeling it. It’s not staged with furniture to make you feel like you’re visiting the castle in its glory days, it’s full of very modern art exhibitions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge art lover. Art as a whole I love and appreciate, ultra modern art just isn’t my thing. And I particularly don’t want to look at it inside a 500 year old chapel. The art exhibitions, I’m sure, are a huge draw for some people, it’s just definitely not my vibe when I’m trying to visit a castle and you readers should definitely be aware it’s there to help you make your visiting decision. I believe the art installations may be seasonal, so double check your dates.
Bonus: Our Airbnb
Tucked between Amboise and Tours is your very own castle to stay in. This is one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed ever in my life. I mean, your own tiny castle!? It has its own parking space (you’ll need a car to explore the Loire) and within biking distance to tons of wineries.
$96 per night
If you ever find yourself in France, do not miss the Loire Valley. It’s a quick 1 1/2 hour train ride from Paris and I definitely suggest staying in or around Amboise, as it has so much charm AND a castle right in the middle of town. If you’ve ever thought “French countryside” and conjured up images in your head, the Loire Valley is exactly what you’re picturing it to be and more.